In the shadow of their feisty challenge to President Bush's policy on the war in Iraq, the House Democrats took a hard, cold look this week at his military budget—and backed away.
The House armed services committee, under Democratic control for the first time since George W. Bush took office, combed through the administration's $504 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2008—and emerged Wednesday night with … a $504 billion defense budget. (Click
The panelists shuffled around a few items: a little less money for missile defense and futuristic Army systems; a little more money for soldiers' pay, health care, and body armor.
But if anyone thought the Democrats might reassess the nation's defense needs or the Pentagon's way of doing business, think again. The Cold War may be long over, but America's Cold War military machine is intact and well-oiled.
This $504 billion—measured in real terms (i.e., adjusting for inflation)—falls only a few billion short of the largest military budget in U.S. history, back in 1952, when America was embarking on its Cold War rearmament campaign and fighting a war in Korea.
One difference: The FY 1952 budget included the cost of fighting in Korea. The FY 2008 budget does not include the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Those costs are covered in the $95.5 billion emergency-spending bill, part of a supplement to the FY 2007 budget, over which the White House and Congress are currently quarreling.)
A half-trillion dollars exceeds the military budgets of all the world's other nations combined. Does the United States really need to spend so much money—again, quite apart from what it's spending on the wars—at a time when we face no heavily armed enemies and when the enemies we do have can't be dealt with by traditional big-ticket weapons systems?
This is a question that no one on the House armed services committee—perhaps no more than a handful in the entire House or Senate—wants to engage.
In one sense, the reluctance is understandable. The Democratic leaders are already taking extraordinary action by opposing a president's war policies. They may wish to stave off the slightest hint of an impression that they are, at the same time, "soft on defense."
Yet in another sense, this passivity is par for the course. The congressional armed services committees have rarely done more than tinker with a president's military budget. There have been exceptions, when the House and Senate have been gripped by great debates over high-profile nuclear weapons systems (the Anti-Ballistic Missile in the late 1960s and early '70s, the B-1 bomber and MX missile in the late '70s and early '80s), but there are no such projects on the Pentagon's drawing boards today.